The History of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Efforts

Chesapeake Sunset - Steven Hayre - 1171x593

The serene beauty of visions like this one off Havre de Grace, Maryland, remind us that a fishable, swimmable, healthy Bay is worth the effort.

Steven Hayre

The Long Road from The Clean Water Act to A Clean Bay

The first 20 words of the 1972 Clean Water Act are straightforward and completely impossible to misinterpret: "The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."

Fifty years after passage of the federal Clean Water Act, bodies of water across the U.S. are so polluted that huge areas are unable to support aquatic life, human health is at risk, and our economy is hurt. The Chesapeake Bay has been on EPA's "dirty waters" list for decades.

According to the Clean Water Act, states must develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) specifying the maximum pollution levels allowable to meet water quality standards for all waters identified on their "dirty waters" list.

The Chesapeake Bay is arguably the most studied large body of water on earth. Forty years of intense scientific investigation by leading estuarine scientists have identified why the Chesapeake is degraded and how to fix it. No other water body in the world can boast this level of scientific understanding.  It is an unusually complex ecosystem, but there is a great deal of scientific consensus on the causes of its decline. First and foremost among these causes is a huge and systemic overabundance of human-introduced nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay from the land and the air. This excess nitrogen and phosphorus feeds algal blooms that block sunlight to underwater grasses and contribute to the formation of dead zones, areas in the Bay and its tidal waters without sufficient levels of oxygen. Ultimately, this degradation of water quality contribute to the decline of the Bay's living resources.

A Timeline of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Efforts

Prior to 1983, with rare exceptions, the jurisdictions that make up the Bay watershed made their own plans and programs independent of one another.


The Clean Water Act

The federal Clean Water Act is passed. The first 20 words of the Act are straight forward and completely impossible to misinterpret: "The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."


First Chesapeake Bay Agreement

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signs the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the state of Maryland, the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The one-page agreement recognizes the need for cooperative action to clean up the Bay, but does not include requirements or timelines.


Second Chesapeake Bay Agreement

EPA, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission sign a new agreement which, for the first time, establishes numeric goals and deadlines. The Agreement requires a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution to the Bay by 2000.


Third Chesapeake Bay Agreement

Partners reaffirm the 1987 Agreement.


Lawsuit Filed Over Virginia TMDL

Environmental groups file a lawsuit against EPA for failing to require Virginia to develop a formal cleanup plan (known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL) for its tidal waters that are on the Clean Water Act's "dirty waters list." The consent decree mandates that EPA develop the TMDL by 2011, if Virginia does not do so by 2010.


Chesapeake 2000 Agreement Sets 2010 Deadline

Partly in response to the Virginia TMDL lawsuit, the EPA and the Bay jurisdictions—this time also including Delaware, New York, and West Virginia—sign a fourth Bay cleanup agreement. The Chesapeake 2000 agreement sets a goal of improving water quality in the Bay and its tidal rivers sufficiently to get them off the "dirty waters list" by 2010.


Chesapeake 2000 Deadline Will Not Be Met

EPA and the governors of the Bay states admit the terms of the 2000 agreement will not be met by the 2010 deadline—indeed likely not until 2020 or later.

January 2009

Chesapeake 2000 Lawsuit

With all voluntary efforts to clean up the Bay over the previous 26 years having failed, CBF and a group of partners file suit against EPA asserting that EPA is legally required to use its existing authorities under the Clean Water Act to set science-based pollution limits (i.e., the TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay.

May 2009

Obama Issues Executive Order

President Obama issues an Executive Order calling the Chesapeake Bay a "national treasure" and instructs his administration to exercise leadership and develop a federal strategy to restore the Bay.

May 2010

Chesapeake 2000 Lawsuit Settled with Historic Agreement

CBF, its co-plaintiffs, and EPA settle the Chesapeake 2000 lawsuit with a historic, binding, legally enforceable agreement that requires EPA to take specific actions, on a timeline, to ensure that pollution to local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay is reduced sufficiently to remove the Bay from the federal "dirty waters" list. Among other commitments, the settlement agreement incorporates the Chesapeake Bay TMDL as well as an "accountability framework" designed to hold states accountable for developing and implementing clean-up plans and two-year milestones.

December 2010

Birth of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint

EPA develops the landmark Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), setting limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tidal rivers to meet water quality goals. The seven Bay jurisdictions develop their own plans to meet these limits in their Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). The WIPs spell out specific steps each jurisdiction will take to have practices in place by 2025 to meet their pollution reduction targets. Together the EPA pollution limits and the states' cleanup plans comprise the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams.

January 2011

American Farm Bureau Federation Sues EPA

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau file suit against EPA, challenging the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. They are soon joined by other large, national agricultural industry groups and the National Association of Homebuilders.

May 2011

CBF and Allies Step In

CBF and other partners file a motion to intervene in the case in support of EPA.

September 2013

Court Upholds Blueprint

A federal District Court in Pennsylvania issues a ruling upholding Bay cleanup efforts, citing them as a model of "cooperative federalism," and rejecting the arguments of the Farm Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders, and other big agriculture interests. The ruling affirms that the EPA, working with the states, has the authority to set science-based pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay.

October 2013

Farm Bureau Appeals to Third Circuit

The American Farm Bureau Federation and its partners appeal the ruling to the Third Circuit. Attorneys general from 21 states (all but one outside the Bay watershed) and eight counties within the watershed filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs supporting the American Farm Bureau Federation and its allies in the effort to derail Bay cleanup.

April 2014

CBF Rallies Against Appeal

CBF rallies support for the Blueprint through government leaders, environmental organizations, and concerned citizens nationwide. Amici briefs in support of EPA and upholding the District Court's decision are filed by the states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia; seven cities including San Francisco, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles; a group of 19 prominent law professors; and 27 environmental organizations from across the country.

June 2014

2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement Signed

Representatives from the entire watershed sign the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. For the first time, Delaware, New York, and West Virginia commit to full partnership in the Bay Program. The agreement includes the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint's pollution reduction goals for 2017 and 2025, but also establishes 10 goals for habitat restoration and conservation, improving fisheries, increasing public access, and environmental literacy, to name a few.

October 2014

CBF Issues Economic Report

CBF issues a peer-reviewed report that indicates full implementation of the Clean Water Blueprint will increase natural economic benefits to the watershed by an astonishing $22.5 billion annually. These benefits include air and water filtration, agricultural and seafood production, property valuation, and flood and hurricane protection.

July 2015

Third Circuit Rules Against Farm Bureau

In a unanimous decision, the Third Circuit affirmed the September 2013 District court ruling upholding EPA's TMDL pollution allocations for the Chesapeake Bay. According to the Court, "[e]stablishing a comprehensive, watershed-wide TMDL-complete with allocations among different kinds of sources, a timetable, and a reasonable assurance that it will actually be implemented is reasonable and reflects a legitimate policy choice by the agency in administering a less-then clear statute."

November 2015

Farm Bureau Appeals to Supreme Court

The American Farm Bureau Federation and its partners petition the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Third Circuit's ruling by filing a Petition for Writ of Certiorari. Again, agricultural and home builder groups solicit scores of states and politicians from outside the Bay region to file amicus briefs in support of their petition. CBF and its partners file a Brief in Opposition with the Supreme Court, requesting that the petition be denied. EPA also files a brief in opposition.

February 2016

Supreme Court Upholds Blueprint

The Supreme Court denies the Federal Farm Bureau appeal, letting the Third Circuit ruling—that EPA did not exceed its authority and that the efforts to restore local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay are entirely legal—stand.

June 2016

Milestones Show Pennsylvania Falling Behind

EPA evaluates the Bay jurisdictions' and federal agencies' progress towards meeting their 2014-2015 milestones. EPA also evaluates the 2016-2017 milestone commitments. It is clear from this assessment that Pennsylvania is falling behind on their pollution reduction commitments, especially for nitrogen.

September 2016

CBF Report Issued on Pennsylvania

CBF issues a report that suggests prioritizing pollution reduction efforts in five south central Pennsylvania counties could dramatically accelerate efforts to get Pennsylvania back on track to meet its pollution reduction goals. This analysis helps catalyze federal funding and focus on these high pollutant loading areas.

July 2018

2017 Midpoint Assessments Released

CBF and EPA release their Midpoint Assessments of progress toward the 2017 goal of having practices in place to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reductions necessary to restore the Bay and its tidal waters. While progress toward the Bay-wide goals for phosphorus and sediment is on target, nitrogen reductions are lagging.

May 2019

2019 State of the Blueprint Report

CBF issues its 2019 State of the Blueprint report. The report finds both good and bad news. While no state is completely on track, Maryland and Virginia are close to having the programs and practices in place to restore water quality and meet the 2025 goal. Pennsylvania, however, has never met its nitrogen reduction targets and its current plan to achieve the 2025 goal is woefully inadequate, detailing only two-thirds of actions necessary to achieve its goal.

June 2019

EPA Evaluates Draft Phase III WIPs

The EPA releases its evaluation of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland's Draft Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans, the final plans they will use to finish the job and meet the 2025 goal. While Virginia and Maryland's plans are on track, Pennsylvania's draft plan falls drastically short of its pollution reduction goals, and Pennsylvania's leaders are not providing the resources necessary to implement the plan and protect their waterways.

EPA's evaluation of Pennsylvania's plan is inadequate—it does not demand further pollution reduction or outline consequences for failure.

August 2019

Phase III WIPs Released

Bay jurisdictions release their Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans. An assessment of those plans by CBF finds that, as currently designed, Bay restoration goals will not be met.

While Virginia and Maryland still have work to do, both states are largely on track to have programs and practices in place by 2025 that will restore water quality in local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania's plan, however, is sorely deficient. It is more than 25 percent short of reaching its pollution-reduction goal for nitrogen and has a self-identified estimated annual funding gap of more than $320 million.

December 2019

EPA Evaluates WIPs/Takes No Action

EPA releases its evaluation of the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans. Notably, EPA takes no action to hold Pennsylvania accountable for the failure of its plan to demonstrate reasonable assurance that the Commonwealth will meet its pollution-reduction goals by 2025.

May 2020

CBF Files Notice of Intent to Sue EPA

CBF and partners file a Notice of Intent to sue the EPA for its failure to require Pennsylvania and New York to develop implementation plans that will achieve the 2025 Bay restoration goals.

August 2020

CBF Evaluates State of the Blueprint

A new CBF report examining the state of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint finds promising signs of progress, but serious red flags remain that threaten to derail the restoration effort.

While Maryland and Virginia are on track, achieving the 2025 pollution reduction goals will require both states to accelerate pollution reductions from agriculture and urban and suburban runoff. Pennsylvania, however, is far off track. It accounts for the largest share of pollution in the watershed, has never met its nitrogen reduction targets, and has identified actions that achieve just three-quarters of the reductions necessary to meet its 2025 goal.

September 2020


CBF and its partners sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for abdicating its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act.

April 2023

EPA Settlement Proposed

In a win for local waterways, healthy communities, and the Chesapeake Bay, a proposed settlement was reached in our lawsuit with partners against EPA.


Per the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, practices should be in place that ultimately will reduce pollution levels to the point that the Chesapeake Bay can be removed from EPA's "dirty waters" list. This will ensure the Bay finally achieves the fishable, swimmable conditions promised by the Clean Water Act that are essential to the health, wellbeing, and outdoor heritage of our communities.

(above) The dark green area shows the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it spans six states and the District of Columbia. From its headwaters in Cooperstown, New York to the Virginia Capes, where its waters collide with the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles away, the Chesapeake is a single biological and hydrological system.

The Chesapeake Bay receives half of its water from a network of 110,000 streams and 1.7 million acres of wetlands, most of which are non-navigable tributaries and non-tidal wetlands that drain to those tributaries.

More than 40 years of scientific research by the Stroud Water Research Center in southeastern Pennsylvania attests to the critical importance of small headwater streams in removing pollution from higher order streams and rivers, as well as in preserving aquatic and riparian life throughout the entire system.

Support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

Donate Today


Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or advocating for a clean Bay, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

This website uses cookies to tailor and enhance your online experience. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, including details on how to disable cookies, please visit our Privacy Policy. Close